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What Christianity feels like: The Chronicles of Narnia and the power

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  • Steve Hayes
    What Christianity feels like: The Chronicles of Narnia and the power of myth By Alister McGrath http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/04/02/3727925.htm
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 6, 2013
      What Christianity feels like: The Chronicles of Narnia and the power
      of myth

      By Alister McGrath
      April 2, 2013


      Why are C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" - especially their
      showcase opener, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - so popular,
      fifty years after their author's death? Many answers might be given,
      from the obvious fact that they are stories well told, to the
      suggestion that they call us back to a lost childhood. But perhaps
      there is something deeper going on here.

      To understand the deep appeal of Narnia, we need first to appreciate
      the place of stories in helping us to make sense of reality, and our
      own place within it. The "Chronicles of Narnia" resonate strongly with
      the basic human intuition that our own story is part of something
      greater and grander - something which, once we have grasped it, allows
      us to see our situation in a new and more meaningful way. A veil is
      lifted; a door is opened; a curtain is drawn aside; we are enabled to
      enter a new realm. Our own story is now seen to be part of a much
      bigger story, which both helps us understand how we fit into a greater
      scheme of things, and discover the difference we can make.

      Like his Oxford friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis was deeply aware of the
      imaginative power of "myths" - stories told to make sense of who we
      are, where we find ourselves, what has gone wrong with things, and
      what can be done about it. A "myth," as Lewis uses the term, is not a
      false story told to deceive, but a story that on the one hand
      resonates with the deepest structures of reality, and on the other has
      an ability to connect up with the human imagination. Tolkien was able
      to use myth to saturate The Lord of the Rings with a mysterious
      "otherness," a sense of magic which hints at a reality beyond that
      which human reason can fathom. Lewis realized that good and evil,
      anguish and joy, can all be seen more clearly when "dipped in myth."
      Through their "presentational realism," these narratives provided a
      way of grasping the deeper structures of our world at both the
      imaginative and rational levels.

      Lewis may also have come to realize the power of myth through reading
      G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, with its classic distinction
      between "imaginary" and "imaginative," and deft analysis of how the
      imagination reaches beyond the limits of reason. "Every true artist,"
      Chesterton argued, feels "that he is touching transcendental truths;
      that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil."

      For Lewis, a myth is a story which evokes awe, enchantment and
      inspiration, and which conveys or embodies an imaginative expression
      of the deepest meanings of life - meanings that prove totally elusive
      in the face of any attempt to express them in purely abstract or
      conceptual forms. For Lewis, God authorizes the use of myth as a means
      of captivating the human imagination and engaging the human reason.

      Lewis thus declares that human beings construct myths because they are
      meant to. They have been created by God with an innate capacity to
      create myths as echoes of a greater story or "story of a larger kind."
      Early Christian writers spoke of the logos spermatikos, a "seed-
      bearing word" implanted within creation by God, preparing the ground
      for the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Tolkien and
      Lewis both - though in slightly different ways - work with the notion
      of mythos spermatikos, a "narrative template" embedded within the
      human soul as part of the created order. Once more, these prepare the
      ground for the definitive revelation of God in the story of Jesus
      Christ. This approach is not about Jungian archetypes (although they
      may perform a similar function); it is rather a fundamentally
      Christian insight about the deeper structure of reality, and the best
      ways of representing and experiencing it by those who bear the "image
      of God."

      Lewis argues that, since "God chooses to be mythopoeic," then we in
      our turn must be "mythopathic" - that is to say, receptive to God's
      myth, recognizing and acknowledging its "mythical radiance" and
      offering it an "imaginative welcome." And, since God uses myths as a
      means of communicating both truth and meaning, why should not humans
      do the same? Particularly those wishing to encourage their culture to
      offer an "imaginative embrace" to the Christian faith? Lewis offers a
      powerful imaginative alternative to the dull over-intellectualized
      apologetics of his own generation, which limited the appeal of the
      Christian faith to our reason.

      Steeped in the riches of medieval and Renaissance literature, and with
      a deep understanding of how "myths" work, Lewis managed to find the
      right voice and the right words to get past the suspicions of a "fully
      waking imagination of a logical mind." Somehow, Narnia seems to
      provide a deeper, brighter, more wonderful and more meaningful world
      than anything we know from our own experience. Though the "Chronicles
      of Narnia" are clearly a work of fiction, they nevertheless seem far
      more "true to life" than many supposedly factual works. These
      evocative stories help us grasp that it is possible for the weak and
      foolish to have a noble calling in a dark world; that our deepest
      intuitions point us to the true meaning of things; that there is
      indeed something beautiful and wonderful at the heart of the universe;
      and that this may be found, embraced and adored.

      Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is about finding a master ring - the ring
      that rules the other rings, which then must be destroyed because it is
      so dangerous and destructive. At the deepest level, Lewis's
      "Chronicles of Narnia" are about finding a master story - the story
      that makes sense of all other stories, which then must be embraced
      because of its power to give meaning and value to life.

      But which is the true story? Which are merely its shadows and echoes?
      And which are fabrications, tales spun to entrap and deceive? At an
      early stage in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the four children
      begin to hear stories about the true origins and destiny of Narnia.
      Puzzled, they find they have to make decisions about what persons and
      what stories are to be trusted. Is Narnia really the realm of the
      White Witch? Or is she a usurper, whose power will be broken when two
      Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones at Cair
      Paravel? Is Narnia really the realm of the mysterious Aslan, whose
      return is expected at any time?

      Gradually, one narrative emerges as supremely plausible - the story of
      Aslan. Each individual story of Narnia turns out to be part of this
      greater narrative. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hints at (and
      partially discloses) the "big picture" which is expanded in the
      remainder of the Narnia series. This "grand narrative" of interlocking
      stories makes sense of the riddles of what the children see and
      experience around them. It allows the children to understand their
      experiences with a new clarity and depth, like a camera lens bringing
      a landscape into sharp focus.

      Yet Lewis did not invent this Narnian narrative. He borrowed and
      adapted one that he already knew well, and had found to be true and
      trustworthy - the Christian narrative of creation, fall, redemption
      and final consummation. Following his late-evening conversation with
      Tolkien about Christianity as the "true myth" in September 1931, Lewis
      began to grasp the explanatory and imaginative power of an
      incarnational faith. Lewis came to believe in Christianity partly
      because of the quality of its literary vision - its ability to give a
      faithful and realistic account of life. Lewis was thus drawn to
      Christianity, not so much by the arguments in its favour, but by
      grasping its compelling vision of reality, which he could not ignore -
      and, as events proved, could not resist.

      The "Chronicles of Narnia" are an imaginative re-telling of the
      Christian "grand narrative," fleshed out with ideas Lewis absorbed
      from the Christian literary tradition. The basic theological themes
      that Lewis set out in Mere Christianity are transposed to their
      original narrative forms, allowing the deep structure of the world to
      be seen with clarity and brilliance. A good and beautiful creation is
      spoiled and ruined by a Fall, in which the creator's power is denied
      and usurped. The creator then enters into the creation to break the
      power of the usurper, and restore things through a redemptive
      sacrifice. Yet even after the coming of the redeemer, the struggle
      against sin and evil continues, and will not be ended until the final
      restoration and transformation of all things. This Christian
      metanarrative - which early Christian writers called the "economy of
      salvation" - provides both a narrative framework and a theological
      underpinning to the multiple narratives woven together in Lewis's
      "Chronicles of Narnia."

      In one sense, the "Chronicles of Narnia" are just a story. Yet to the
      initiated, they are a retelling of the greatest story of all, which no
      human story can ever articulate adequately. Lewis's remarkable
      achievement in the "Chronicles of Narnia" is to allow his readers to
      inhabit this metanarrative - to get inside the story, and feel what it
      is like to be part of it. Mere Christianity allows us to understand
      Christian ideas; the Narnia stories allow us to step inside and
      experience the Christian story, and judge it by its ability to make
      sense of things, and "chime in" with our deepest intuitions about
      truth, beauty and goodness.

      Like Lewis's wardrobe, they throw open an imaginative gateway to
      discovering and embracing the "Great Story," for which this life is
      but a "title page."

      Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at
      King's College London, Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester
      College, Oxford University, and President of the Oxford Center for
      Christian Apologetics. His most recent books, published to mark the
      fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, are C.S. Lewis - A
      Life. Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet and The Intellectual World
      of C.S. Lewis

      Steve Hayes
      E-mail: shayes@...
      Web: http://hayesfam.bravehost.com/litmain.htm
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